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In an economic downturn, it’s pretty obvious that fresh entrants to the business do themselves a favour by honing skills employers desire.

The awesome thing about the web is that people give away excellent advice for free every day. If you’re in PR and getting started there’s a plethora of great books, blogspodcasts and cool chats on the business that can give you a leg up. All you have to do is read, listen and participate.

While it’s important to immerse yourself in the PR world, sometimes you learn more by getting away from the fishbowl. Students in particular do themselves a BIG favour by looking outside the game for learnings.

Here are three non-PR related activities that will help you get better at PR:

  • Reading Ernest Hemingway novels: Papa Hemingway was a trained journalist (who worked for, among others, the Toronto Star). Hemingway’s prose has been described as “lean and athletic,” which sounds kinda pretentious but is actually quite true. He remains the grandmaster of the concise, to the point, declarative writing you need in PR. Read his stuff and you’ll not only pick up great writing tips but be thoroughly entertained. My personal faves are For Whom the Bell Tolls and Farewell to Arms.
  • Seeing some art: PR is not a formulaic, repetitive, robot game and the letters don’t stand for press release. If you are doing it right, it’s art. This is especially true if you are creating off the wall crazy, cool things that get loads of attention. While I’ve never come up with something the scale of the T-mobile dance sensation, we’ve done some fun things. The inspiration has not come from reading PR blogs or listening to podcasts, but from being exposed to creativity. So get out to the nearest gallery, performance art show or whatever appeals to you from this realm. It should get the juices flowing.
  • Watching sports: My girlfriend cries at the beginning of each NFL season. If you are like her, ignore this. Jokes aside, the sporting world has a lot to teach PR people. Sport is, in many senses, organized chaos where the winner does the best job of influencing the uncontrollable. Back in the day, “control” used to be a goal of PR, but now “influencing the uncontrollable” is a more apropos description of our craft. Sport is emblematic of this and, as such, has valuable lessons for flaks. (there ya go couch potatoes, you can thank me now!)

Do you have activities from outside the industry bubble that help you become better at PR?


For an excellent on-subject reading list re social media/PR/marketing see this post from Mitch Joel. Re on-subject marketing/PR podcasts check out Danny Starr’s list.

Join the discussion 13 Comments


    Those are very creative ideas, to which I will add a vanilla one.

    My suggestion is to consider volunteering as a way to do the type of work you would want to be paid for, and to develop your skills and network.

    Not-for-profit organizations have an insatiable appetite for talent, particularly with respect to communications (and fundraising, though the two are often conjoined). If you don’t believe me (and you live in Ottawa) write me and I’ll have you planning a communications strategy within 7 days and doing whatever work you want to be doing. If you live elsewhere, try using simple searches on Google, Craigslist and volunteer[insertcitynamehere].com

    Volunteering is one way you can have the job no private sector organization (or public sector organization, for that matter) will pay an inexperienced hire to do. Just graduated but fancy yourself working as “Director of Communications”, or “Chair, Communications and Fundraising Committee”? Good. Here’s what you need to do.

    2 easy steps:

    (1) Find a cause you believe in (e.g., environment, political party, community group, hobby group, industry association);

    (2) Phone or email one of its leaders to express your interest and willingness to contribute some of your time.

    If the organization you end up serving doesn’t like your ideas or work, what’s the worst thing they can do?

  • Thanks for the thoughtful comment Geoff. Excellent ideas and clear actionable steps. Appreciate you sharing this.

  • Ashley White says:

    Awesome! These are some great tips that I never would have thought of. I’m currently a public relations student, and I’m just getting started with a lot of my major classes. The textbooks and such focus so much on the definition of PR and the differences it has compared to journalism, marketing, etc, but none of them have focused on this aspect. The one that I think I got the most surprise from was the last activity, sports. Now that I’m pointed to think in that direction, it is becoming more obvious how it would help me in PR. Again, thank you for these one-of-a-kind tips. I know it will help many others in their careers.

  • So many great learnings come from other realms. Moreover, we gotta get away from the daily grind sometimes This is the stuff that has helped me.

    I am glad you liked the post!

  • Sarah Lyons says:

    Thanks Jackson! Especially nowadays when the lines between different ways to promote clients are so blurred, I appreciate “non PR” ways to get better at PR. Something I’ve been trying to do is tool around online more. Haha, no seriously. I know that the more organic relationships I can build with bloggers and fellow social media addicts, the better & more diverse pool of friends I’ll have when the need arises to do some crowd sourcing or build some community-based buzz. And, if I get to read more about shoes, food, and politics in the meantime, that’s even better if you ask me.

  • Thanks Sarah!

    We all gotta stop working sometimes. I think in the always-on age we live in it is really easy to lose sight of the fact that some of the best ideas come when we jump out of our fishbowl(s). This is one reason I love travelling so much.

  • D. Fields says:

    Participation in creative activities would be a natural addition to observing the arts. I love to perform on stage in theater. I find the exercise beneficial on many levels.

    1: Creative thinking: I learned many years ago that things do not always go according to “plan.” Being flexible and creative lets the show continue to go on in spite of the unexpected.

    2: Fresh Eyes: You mentioned in your post that sports is a distraction that helps provide insight. For me, theater can do this. I step outside myself for a time and view the world through fresh eyes. Shifting your POV can be a real game changer when it comes to looking for new ideas and anticipating potential impact.

    Thank you for your insightful post.

  • Thanks for the comment David. I appreciate the point you make about distractions. Sport is a hobby (both to play and follow) of mine, but any number of other “distractions” would have similar effect. Theatre in particular must be interesting because it allows one to actually step outside of the self (at least if one is an actor playing a character).

  • I heart your blog, Jackson!

  • Thanks Sharna! Appreciate the kind words 🙂

  • Marco Fiori says:

    I’d totally echo the art – it helps to distance yourself from the PR world once in a while to get a different perspective on things. The theatre’s fun to relax and get ideas from!

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